Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 51;   December 16, 2020:

Flattery and Its Perils


Flattery is a tool of manipulation. When skillfully employed, it's difficult to distinguish from praise or admiration. When we confuse flattery with praise, we are in peril.
Dante's Eighth Circle of Hell

Dante Alighieri's Eighth Circle of Hell, where the souls of those who committed frauds are punished. The top half, called Bolgia 1, is reserved for panderers and seducers. The lower half, called Bolgia 2, is reserved for flatterers. Illustration titled Canto XVIII by Sandro Botticelli, dated in the 1480s. Flattery is indeed an old tactic. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Receiving praise — or positive messages of any kind from others — about oneself generally feels good. Even wonderful. The intensity of the feeling is likely correlated with the significance of the message. Examples are compliments from one's teacher about one's work, winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay, or receiving a marriage proposal from someone you love.

As wonderful as positive messages might feel, some positive messages can be harmful or dangerous. For example, someone intent on gaining your agreement to perform an onerous or risky task might preface the request with praise for your performance on a previous task: "Rick, you so clearly demonstrated your expertise with lions last week, how about you slay this horrible dragon this week?" To persuade someone using flattery is such a common and ancient ploy that it has several names in many languages. In English, for example, to persuade using flattery is to cajole or to inveigle.

Because our responses to positive messages are almost always pleasurable, we can sometimes have difficulty distinguishing helpful positive messages from harmful or dangerous positive messages. Knowing where positive messages lie on the Helpful-to-Harmful spectrum can be advantageous to anyone engaged in workplace politics. And, one might argue, anyone who works is engaged in workplace politics.

Positive messages appear in a variety of forms. Tone and intention can be as important as content. For example, after one participant in a meeting contributes a comment to a discussion, another participant might say, "Right, I hadn't considered that possibility. Good thing you noticed that." Another possibility: after a long silence, someone might say, "Whoops. Now we're in real trouble." The former is a clear statement of appreciation. The latter can also be positive, perhaps. If the speaker is acknowledging the value of recognizing a problem, the comment is helpful. But you'd be wise to consider alternative interpretations.

The variety As wonderful as positive messages
might feel, some positive messages
can be harmful or dangerous. Learn
to distinguish flattery from praise.
of forms of positive messages complicates classification. Still, an ability to recognize some of the attributes of the most harmful forms can provide a useful level of safety. In that spirit I offer the little catalog below. In what follows, I'll refer to the sender of the positive message as Author, the target of the positive message as Recipient, and witnesses to the delivery of the message as Audience.

A direct positive message is one that states clearly what attribute or action of Recipient is worthy of note. In a healthy environment, expressing appreciation of one's colleagues is commendable and constructive. Indeed, in healthy environments, such expressions can be relatively common.
However, in environments in which delivering direct positive messages is so rare that such incidents stand out as exceptional, directness can be associated with questionable motivations. Directness in such circumstances can seem awkward, insincere, or phony. Recipients sometimes respond with skepticism, wondering what Author might be seeking now.
Indirectness can mitigate the risk of seeming insincere. Here's a direct form (spoken at a meeting): "Evan did a great job on the Marigold risk profile." Compare this to the indirect form: "If anyone is looking for a pattern to follow for documenting risk profiles, have a look at what Evan did for Marigold." The former, the direct form, is positive, but leaves one wondering why Author mentions it, or why Author is mentioning it now. The latter, an indirect form, answers such questions pre-emptively: Author is interested in process improvement. Authors who wish to prevent Recipients from questioning Author's motivations might use indirectness to do so.
Compared to sincere positive messages, insincere positive messages are more likely to be harmful. The sincerity of a positive message is related to the extent to which it is specific and detailed about what Author found to be worthy of comment. Being specific and detailed entails a degree of risk, because Author is actually conveying two messages. The first message is the positive message about Recipient or something Recipient has done. The second message is a message about what Author finds worthy of comment. This second message can carry some risk for Author if an Audience witnesses the message delivery, because, of course, some of the Audience might disagree.
Some Authors manage this risk by limiting the specificity and detail of their messages. Some manage risk by limiting the Audience — by delivering the message in private. The sincerity of the message is more questionable the more its Author has invested in risk management by limiting specificity, detail, or Audience.
An example of a positive but less sincere message: "I agree with the point Sara just made about a hidden risk. And I think we can easily deal with that risk should it materialize." This message is nonspecific and lacking in detail. A more sincere version would have provided more detail about why Sara's point is important. This example also contains a contradiction, making the message even less positive than it might have been.
Authors who repeatedly deliver positive messages risk cheapening the value of those messages. An elevated frequency of positive messages from one Author could indicate that the Author is using the messages as part of a strategy of ingratiating Recipients. This is a more likely possibility if the messages relate to only one or a few Recipients, or if the messages are delivered more frequently when Author wants something from Recipient.
Infrequent positive messages are more likely to be received as genuine, by both Recipient and Audience. Beware positive messages from someone who authors them with great frequency, especially when they're repetitious in content.
Audience size
As noted above, delivering positive messages in private — one-to-one — is a way for Author to limit risk of exposure to contradiction. Recipient would be well advised to treat with skepticism, even suspicion, positive messages received in private, especially if Author fails to deliver similar messages when an Audience is present and an appropriate opportunity arises. All other factors being equal, the genuineness of positive messages is likely correlated with the size or political significance of the Audience.
Conversely, during a time when an Author is delivering a positive message to Recipient, a member of Audience might take steps to distract the attention of other members of the Audience, or otherwise interfere with Author's delivery of positive messages. When this occurs, the distracting individual might be acting out of obtuseness. Another possibility is that he or she intends to disrupt delivery of Author's message.

Positive messages feel good. That feeling can interfere with our ability to process the significance of the message by biasing us in favor of attributing benign motives to the senders of the messages. The extent to which that bias presents political risk depends on the nature of the political environment. Go to top Top  Next issue: Anticipating Absence: Internal Consulting  Next Issue

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In many organizations, technical debt has resisted efforts to control it. We've made important technical advances, but full control might require applying some results of the behavioral economics community, including a concept they call mental accounting. Available here and by RSS on June 1.
A goose and goslingsAnd on June 8: Flexible Queue Management
In meetings of 5-30 participants, managing the queue of contributors can be challenging. A strict first-in-first-out order can cause confusion and waste of time if important contributions are delayed. Some meetings need more flexible queue management. Available here and by RSS on June 8.

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